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Category: Interviews

Interview with Lynne Kutsukake

Interview with Lynne Kutsukake

Lynne Kutsukake’s novel The Translation of Love explores the American occupation of Japan after World War II. I reviewed it last year, and as I was reading this engaging novel, I had some questions for the author. I’m so pleased that she agreed to be interviewed.

You mention that the book was inspired by letters from Japanese people to General MacArthur. How did a whole novel grow out of a book of letters?

Lynne: I was fascinated that Japanese people would write hundreds of thousands of letters to someone who until recently had been the enemy and who was now in charge of occupying their country. At one level it seemed so strange and mystifying. Yet when you think about the complex emotions many people probably felt at the end of the war (the pain of defeat but also enormous relief that the war was finally over), maybe it’s not so surprising that people sought a way to voice their feelings and demands in a way that they couldn’t have during the war. The person in charge was MacArthur, so they wrote to him. The situation completely intrigued me and really sparked my imagination. I was interested in the emotions driving people to write to MacArthur. How desperate would you be? How angry? How hopeful? And I was really keen to try my hand at writing the letters myself.

I was really drawn in by the first scene in the book, when Fumi describes looking forward to American food such as peanut butter and white bread. Did the American occupation of Japan change Japanese culture in any way?

Lynne: Without a doubt the occupation had a significant impact on people’s daily lives in the postwar years. There was a rush to learn English and a fascination with things American. The new constitution crafted by the occupation forces was very progressive and granted voting rights to Japanese women for the first time and renounced war. Peanut butter, though, never really caught on in the long run.

You tell the story through the eyes of several different people, and you manage to make each character engaging and unique. Did you base your characters on anyone you read about, or anyone you knew? How did you develop the characters?

Lynne: Thanks so much. I’m really glad you liked the characters. Although they are entirely fictional and not based on real people, my hope was that readers would become as attached to them as I did. The first character who came to me was Fumi. I knew from the start that I wanted a twelve-year-old Japanese protagonist, and Fumi sprang to life pretty quickly. Once I had Fumi in mind, I wanted her to have a friend who could help her write her letter to MacArthur, and what better person for that role than a Japanese Canadian girl who knows English. The character of Aya allowed me to bring in the backstory of the Japanese Canadian internment and deportation, just as the characters of Matt and Nancy provided a Japanese American perspective. I gave each of the characters his/her individual backstory, but I found that the real development of their characters didn’t take place until I put them in relation to each other and made them interact. Once they began interacting with each other – talking to each other and acting upon each other – their individual personalities really began to grow.

In your novel, the Japanese seem so welcoming to the Americans. Was this really the way it was? Why do you think the Japanese welcomed a country that dropped two atomic bombs on them?

Lynne: I think it was very complicated. Most Japanese did not welcome the Americans at the beginning, not at all. On the contrary there was widespread fear that the Americans would conduct a brutal, vengeful occupation. When that turned out not to be the case (the occupation was more administrative and bureaucratic in nature than it was military), there was a sense of relief. And then, because there were terrible food shortages and because the Americans were the ones who brought food aid, the relationship of dependency grew.

What was your research process like? How did you keep track of the information you found?

Lynne: I did a lot of reading and I took a lot of notes. But it wasn’t very systematic. Of course I gathered a lot of information that I didn’t need or couldn’t use or didn’t want to use, but I don’t think there is any shortcut. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you just trust that the interesting details that you come across will spark your creative juices.

How did you decide when to stick with historical facts and when to stray from those facts?

Lynne: I didn’t want to stray from historical facts. But at the same time I found it more interesting to focus on those hidden corners of history that have not been explored much and that therefore allowed a lot of space for imaginative roaming. So, while the story of the American occupation of Japan (as told in English) is usually seen through the eyes of white American GIs, I wanted the perspective to be through the eyes of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans – people who were in a kind of in-between space, people who were often ignored.

What do you hope people will come away with after reading this novel?

Lynne: That the humanity of people everywhere — regardless of country, color, race, religion — is basically the same.

Is there anything about this book that most people are not noticing or commenting on, that you wish readers and reviewers would notice?

Lynne: Not too many people comment on the fundamental irony of America bringing democracy to Japan but at the same time interning and incarcerating its own American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the war.

Thank you for the interview, Lynne! If you would like to follow Lynne, she is on Twitter: @LynneKutsukake

Interview with Margot Livesey

Interview with Margot Livesey

I am so excited to present this interview with Margot Livesey, author of Eva Moves the Furniture and many other novels (including her latest, Mercury.) I reviewed Eva Moves the Furniture in an earlier post, and I wanted to ask Margot how she came to write the novel, which encompasses so much: a fascinating ghost story, a tender mother-daughter novel, and the chronicle of a woman discovering who she is.

You mention on your web site that this novel took you 13 years to write. Why? What difficulties did you experience?

Margot: I had already written and published one novel, Homework, when I began Eva Moves the Furniture. The novel was based on the life of my mother who died when I was two and a half and, naively, I thought that the material was so interesting—my dead mother! ghosts! —that I didn’t really need to do anything to keep the readers’ attention. It took me years to figure out that I needed a plot and a conflict and all the things novels usually need.

How closely did you stick to your mother’s life? How much inventing did you do?

Margot: I know very little about my mother’s life so most of the novel is invented. I do regret that for artistic reasons I had to change some of the few facts that I did have. The real Eva actually spent much of the Second World War working as a nurse in London and not, as she does in my novel, in Glasgow. And I brought forward the timing of her marriage, my birth and her death.

The ghostly companions are a major part of this novel. Are they based on fact?

Margot: Yes. Among the handful of stories I have about Eva is one in which she sees “people” who are largely invisible to those around her. I found this fascinating and also the fact that my adopted father, who told me this story, described Eva’s attitude to these “people” as very matter of fact.

I think this novel could be classified as magical realism. What do you think?

Margot:I would agree although not the kind of magical realism in which many strange things happen—Eva’s world is just like ours except for one major difference.

Do you feel like writing this novel brought you closer to your mother?

Margot: Writing the novel did make me feel, for the first time, that I had a mother. But it also obliterated the historical person with the fictional character I’d created.

This feels like a deeply spiritual book, although religion and spirituality are not overtly discussed. Did you mean for it to be a spiritual book?

Margot: Yes. When I finally found my way to the version of the novel that exists between covers I realized that a major theme of the novel was about our relationships with the dead which must surely be a spiritual question for everyone over a certain age.

What was your research process like?

Margot: Research was what finally enabled me to write the novel. For many years I had thought that the novel would be purely imagined but then it finally dawned on me that Eva had grown up into the Second World War. I began to do research in books and archives which led me to the discovery of the role plastic, or reconstructive, surgery had played during the War as doctors operated on the many casualties of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. And that research in turn led me to my plot.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about historical fiction or this particular book?

Margot: After my many years of struggling with Eva, it makes me very happy that it is out in the world and still finding readers. The novel was published on 9/11—a very dark day—and for several months no one was thinking much about fiction, but then people began to write to me saying that they had read Eva and found it comforting. Of course death changes everything, but we do still have a relationship with the dead. We keep talking to them and that relationship keeps changing, and growing.

Thank you, Margot, for these interesting thoughts about life and death, and how to turn fact into fiction. For more about Margot, please see her web site: http://margotlivesey.com/

Interview with Breena Clarke

Interview with Breena Clarke

Breena Clarke is the author of River, Cross My Heart (which I reviewed earlier), Angels Make Their Hope Here, and Stand the Storm. I was thrilled when Breena agreed to be interviewed about the writing of River, Cross My Heart and about writing historical fiction.

River, Cross My Heart is about the African-American community in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC during the 1920’s. I know that you grew up in Georgetown, as did your parents. How much of your novel is based on stories told by your family, and how much is made up?

Breena: The impetus for beginning to write River, Cross My Heart came directly as a result of having listened to an oral history that my mother had taped at my request. She and my father grew up in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C and their memories of the neighborhood were vivid. It was more than facts that they related. They related a sense of community that enforced social segregation made imperative, but that nevertheless was a source of their positive sense of themselves. I regretted that the stories of Washington’s neighborhoods were not known, were not being told. Why not, I wondered? It gave me a lot of energy to galvanize my research work as being necessary, being purposeful.

What did you hope to accomplish with this novel? What did you want readers to come away with?

Breena: Above all, I wanted the reader to feel and empathize with the herculean task of parenting during this period of segregation. I wanted them to feel a young person’s goals and aspirations threatened and destroyed by racism. However, I did want to depict a good and successful life story despite these challenges.

How did your own life impact this novel? (In other words, even though this is a historical novel, did some of your own experiences make their way into the novel?) I ask because the novel seems so immediate, almost autobiographical. It reminds me of Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, which is autobiographical.

Breena: I experienced the loss of my only child in an accident. This was a devastating loss to me and my husband and it became the precipitating event that compelled me to write. I’d always wanted to write and had done a fair amount of dramatic writing and journalism. I sincerely wanted to express the profound grief of this child’s death and the impact that a family member’s death can have on an entire family. I began a regular practice of writing my recollection of him. This led directly to my undertaking fiction. I wanted to indulge myself in contemplating my son even if only in an oblique way. I would not consider River, Cross My Heart to be autobiographical, however. None of the events actually occurred.

I’m sorry for the loss of your son, but I’m glad you found your way to fiction. How much research did you do for this novel?

Breena: I undertook a couple of years of poking around and reading as much as possible about Washington in this period. However, I did more digging than I actually needed to. I was very nervous to get facts just right — as right as possible. I had to make myself begin to write down my fictional story and check facts later. That is a point that an historical novelist has to get to, I think. You’ve got to trust that you are solid and then plunge into the fiction.

Jumping from fact to fiction–it sounds like that was difficult for you.

Breena: The hardest part comes when you have to admit that you have done all the research and can no longer use research to keep you from focusing on your fictional story. Research can become a time-waster. One things that helps is the realization that even verifiable facts are open to interpretation, that many historical accounts are fiction-fied.

The characters in this novel seem so real and so unique. Was it difficult to achieve this, or did you have a sense of the characters all along?

Breena: I had quite a few interesting people on which to model my characters. I usually say that each fictional person is a composite of some actual acquaintances. I was most concerned to allow my characters to have a wide range of behaviors. One of the things that annoys me most about some of the great fiction of the past is the complete absence of Black people like the ones I’ve known. Frankly, people of color are not always imaginable by White authors. I wanted to paint their lives in. I’m beyond pleased when readers find my characters unique, but I don’t want them to strain plausibility and seem too eccentric.

You have certainly achieved your goal to “paint their lives in.” Is there anything else about this book that most people are not noticing or commenting on, that you wish readers and reviewers would notice?

Breena: I intend that my characters will challenge the white, Euro-centric construct of the United States, the Americas. I want every reader to approach my work, to take it up, to challenge my text if they need to, but go away from my work knowing that Black is beautiful and smart and brave and hilarious, that people of color do not depend upon the favor of the white gaze for self-actualization.

Are you working on a book of historical fiction now, and if so, would you like to tell us about it?

Breena: I am working on another historically-based novel that will be set mostly in the mid-Atlantic region. I’m thinking about my approach to this account differently. I am using a contemporary narrator, as well as an historical one. First-person voice is a different turn for me.

Thank you, Breena, and good luck with the new novel! Check out her web site at www.BreenaClarke.com